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Bent Knee at Schubas 6/12/2017

I was introduced to Bent Knee a couple weeks ago when I read about their new record, Land Animal, which comes out next week on Inside/Out. The title track was put out as the first single, and I was sure it was a cover at first because there was something familiar about it. The pace and timbre of the delivery from Courtney Swain was stuck in my head for a couple of days. I realize now that my mind was just playing tricks on me. Her voice does remind me of Hayley Mary from The Jezabels (particularly on “Noah’s Ark”), but the song is wholly original.

Going into the live show I didn’t really have any expectations. Bent Knee has been playing together for a long time now, so I knew they’d be tight, and I had some idea of what they sounded like on record but no clue what their concerts were like. Turns out they’re just as interested in having fun as the people in the audience.

The show was being taped by the people at Audiotree, who also own the venue. That limited where I could go to take pictures a bit because I didn’t want to get in the way of the guys filming up front. I moved around a bit to try to get some different angles, but there were enough people there for the show that it wasn’t always easy (I’m average height, but a lot of concert goers are much taller than myself).

The most animated member of the band, Ben Levin, was a joy to watch. He seemed both completely focused and freewheeling at the same time. He was all smiles and his energy just couldn’t be contained by the stage. That energy was felt throughout the audience, as the ground shook multiple times from people stomping and jumping right along with him.

I enjoyed what I heard from this group of Bostonians. Swaine’s vocals can feel overwhelming at times, but it’s that same raw power that gives the songs their emotional weight. The label “orchestral pop” does fit to a degree, but I’ve never liked it. Nor “chamber pop,” though I think that works better. Having a live violinist is almost always a good thing, and though I didn’t get any good pictures of him, Vince Welch working the knobs and synths adds a great element to the music.

Steph Barrak-Never Again

February 6, 2017 Leave a comment

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A few months ago I wrote about the first single off Never Again, the new EP from singer/songwriter Steph Barrak. It feels like forever ago, but the EP is finally out and you can stream it on Spotify or buy it on iTunes and Bandcamp. This is Steph’s first release in quite a while, and I’m very pleased with the results after the long hiatus.

Never Again is a much slicker production than her Valentine’s treatise Words To Break Your Heart back in February of 2013. This release is much shorter, but hits the same themes of love and loss and dealing with the rough times and coming out stronger on the other side.

Lyrically and musically Never Again finds Barrak hitting some of the potential that made Words such an interesting record. There’s a lot to be said about our own self-destructive ways, and she lays it out on “Bad Habits.” One of my favorite sections of the EP is the bridge that includes this stanza:

Try as I might my heart just will not listen
To my brain when it says to quit all this feeling
Did I lose control, drive this straight off the freeway
Or do we subconsciously mean to destroy things

I’m a big fan of the ambitious zeal that drives this record. It’s been a while and I’m sure a lot has changed for Barrak over the last few years, but Never Again is a huge leap with big guitar hooks and harmonies that didn’t exist on Words. I’m hoping this is just the beginning and we’ll get many more records from Steph Barrak (and hopefully not all 3 or 4 years apart).

 

Steph Barrak-So Familiar

November 17, 2016 Leave a comment

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It’s been more than three and a half years since we heard new music from Steph Barrak. Her debut LP, Words To Break Your Heart, came out on Valentine’s Day 2013 and she added her name to my list of singer/songwriters to watch. Finally she’s back with a new single and a record due out in early February.

The time in between releases hasn’t caused any deficit in her songwriting or singing. “So Familiar” is as radio-ready and relatable as anything off Words. The production feels like it’s taken a step up, so the new record may be a bit more slick. She’s working with the same team from the last album, and they all seem to have grown together during the hiatus.

As with her previous album, 50% of the sales of this single will go toward Girls Rock Boston. You can purchase it here.

Never Again will be available February 3rd.

Magic Man at Metro 4/23/2016

April 24, 2016 Leave a comment

According to a trio of Arlington Heights girls I talked to before Magic Man’s set at Metro, the line to get in started at 6:30am. A 13-hour wait to see a band seems crazy to me, but I’m old. The closest I came was driving from Des Moines to Minneapolis in 2006 to see Prince play at First Ave for the first time in 30 years (he was dropping the 3121 album, and also a new fragrance at Bloomingdale’s-or Macy’s, I don’t remember). I didn’t think of that as odd, because I love Prince. And apparently a lot of people love Boston band Magic Man.

The group headlined the Chicago stop of the Hotline Spring tour with The Griswolds and Panama Wedding, and held up the insane energy level that ran from beginning to end. Of the three bands, I was least familiar with Magic Man, but their sound was tight and they were having a lot of fun. Alex Caplow was all over the place, jumping on risers and leaning out into the audience to connect with the fans. The crowd went crazy, of course, and Magic Man delivered a memorable set they’ll carry with them for years to come.

Steph Barrak-Words To Break Your Heart

February 26, 2013 1 comment

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Boston-based singer-songwriter Steph Barrak is flying under the radar right now, despite releasing a very good record on Valentine’s Day called Words To Break Your Heart. Over the course of eleven songs she proves herself to be a fine writer and performer, combining the emotional sincerity and intelligence of Laura Veirs with the sing-along pop sensibility of the early 2000’s wave of female Top 40 stars (Michelle Branch, Vanessa Carlton). It’s a modern record about relationships that feels fresh despite dealing with themes that have guided recorded music since it’s earliest days.

The record goes into some pretty dark places, but keeps a sunny disposition for the most part. Even in a song about feeling trapped-either by obligation or fear-the drums are driving and the vocals soaring with words like: “If I were to go, I know you’d be upset , but everything I am can be purchased or created again. I don’t think it’s fair, I’m so easily replaced , but it’s just the way I’ve been evolving.

All of the slower songs are found at the end of the record, which provides a strange dynamic. I would guess it was done on purpose, to reflect the pattern of a doomed relationship-starts fast and optimistic and then crashing down suddenly. “Married A Robber” is probably the best of the closing tracks. It’s a well-crafted tune with haunting lyrics and a guitar lead more pronounced than anywhere else on the record.

My favorite song is the third track, “Robot.” It reminds me of Execution Of All Things-era Rilo Kiley. I can already imagine the crowd singing along with the last verse in a great moment of crowd participation to close out a live show. I don’t remember ever hearing such a fun song about an unfeeling automaton.

I’ve been listening to Words To Break Your Heart off and on for the past couple weeks, and it doesn’t get played out like a lot of albums do. It’s a smart pop record, which I’ve been hearing more and more of lately, especially out of Boston. Must be something in the water up there. You can check it out for yourself via free streaming or “Pay What You Want” on Steph’s Bandcamp page.

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